Stained Jerseys

I don’t consider myself much of a sports fan. I don’t possess the desire or attention span to follow an entire season.

I am a fan of travel features that highlight distant locales. And I’m a sucker for melodramatic retellings of triumph— I wore #45 on my high school football team (if you get it, you get it).

So, as a casual onlooker, the Olympics are just the right temperature porridge for me: they only occur every two years (four if you’re afraid of snow); the events are self-explanatory (throw farther, run faster, etc.); they’re usually in faraway places; and are replete with anecdotes of personal and team achievement.

It’s so easy to get behind a squad of athletes adorned in your country’s colours. Lately, I think there’s an increasing attention paid to this unfortunately divisive facet of the Games: I fear this harbingers an incipient bigotry and chauvinism pervading even the purest of our endeavours. Perhaps it’s the milieu of our time (I hope not), it could be the natural rhythm of chest-thumping patriotism, or, more likely, we’ve managed to convince ourselves—rather selfishly, I might add—that the Games are about us. I assure you they are not.

The modern Games began as an amateur event, free from corporate sponsorships. The focus was on athleticism, individual and team accomplishment: a showcase of human achievement.  Today they’re a more bloated, extravagant affair and the focus appears to be wavering. I wonder if the first of these new Games didn’t feel it necessary to group athletes into teams by their respective nations. Would we be as captivated? If we didn’t share that commonality with them would we care how they fared? If the colours disappeared from the jerseys, would we insist on grouping these athletes by another, more insidious method?

The fact is the accomplishments of Olympic athletes are their own. We do not endure the many tireless hours training and innumerable sacrifices.  When the realization of that far-off, almost impossible, dream is realized we should count ourselves lucky to share in it. Our only claim to that glory is the most tenuous similarity: the colours they wear.

I was embarrassed for the audiences that jeered the Russians: behaviour demonstrative of superficial, media-fuelled groupthink. The Russian athletes that were permitted to compete should be commended not criticized.  Remember, Olympic teammates begin as national competitors, vying for a limited number of slots in international competitions. Not only did this Olympiad’s Russian competitors face institutional pressure to dope but (must have) knowingly competed against those that did for those coveted slots. When the scandal came to light, they were subjected to a battery of tests and scrutiny far beyond what any other athlete attending the Games had to endure. But still, they wore their jerseys proudly and competed admirably. Each one of them endured these tribulations and they were rewarded with heckles and boos. They wanted, like all the athletes, to share their glory with their countrymen, but the crowds robbed them of their opportunity. It is a true betrayal of the Olympic ideal.

The officials may still hand out the medals but the glory seems to be doled out by the media these days—and they’re overly-reductive in their approach. They seek to underscore conflict to the point of contriving it: through over-analysis and specious commentary. Competition and conflict are not the same. The Olympics should be about conflict; the competition should be between the people wearing colours—not the colours themselves.

Maybe my hope is quixotic but I’ve always maintained a rose-coloured perception of the Olympics. Every two years the world has an opportunity to lay aside its differences and offer its very best the chance to compete. The stitches of clothing the competitors choose to wear should never eclipse their individual achievements. If we insist on supporting merely the jerseys athletes wear then we must remember that we wear those colours too; and every one comes with stains: slavery, internment camps, apartheid, disparity, intolerance, unjust persecution and yes, doping scandals. If we’re not going to set these aside and bask in the possibility of something brighter, let’s at least remember that there’s not a unsoiled jersey in the bunch.



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